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Chapter 3:

  • Mr. Sumner on leaving College.
  • -- private Studies. -- opportunities and Preparations. -- spirit of the works of genius. -- Daniel Webster. -- Mr. Sumner enters the Law School. -- method of study. -- Mr. Justice Story. -- Mr. Sumner's regard for him. -- his eloquent Tribute to him. -- his Indebtedness to him. -- Mr. Sumner contributes to “the American jurist.” -- Studies with Benjamin Rand, Esq. -- his regard for the Law School. -- his Admission to the bar. -- “Sumner's Reports.” -- Compliment of Baron Parke. -- lectures to the Dane Law School. -- Edits Andrew Dunlap's “Admiralty practice.” -- his Promise as a Lawyer. -- his acquaintance with Dr. S. G. Howe.

It is by dint of steady labor; it is by giving enough of application to the work, and having enough of time for the doing of it; it is by regular painstaking and the plying of constant assiduties,--it is by these, and not by any process of legerdemain, that we secure the strength and the stability of real excellence. It was thus that Demosthenes, clause after clause, and sentence after sentence, elaborated, and that to the uttermost, his immortal orations. --Thomas Chalmers.

On leaving college, at the age of nineteen years, Charles Sumner had a well-developed, manly form, a clear and resonant voice, and a character of unimpeachable integrity. His health was excellent, his aspiration lofty. He at once commenced upon a course of private study, reviewing [38] carefully his college text-books, extending his knowledge of the modern languages, and his course of English reading. lie listened on the sabbath to the eloquent discourses of the Rev. Dr. Greenwood at King's Chapel, and occasionally heard the polished sentences of Edward Everett on the platform, and the solid arguments of Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster at the bar. His father's position as high sheriff of the county gave him ready access to the society of the leading lawyers of the day, and naturally inclined him to adopt the law as his profession. Whether at this period he read Mr. Garrison's uncompromising “Liberator,” established on the 1st of January, 1831, or sympathized with the rising pulsebeat of that tremendous power of which he was to become a prominent director, and which was to change the destiny of this nation, is not now clearly known: but the immortal works of genius whose spirit he had fondly breathed are instinct with the love of human liberty; and his mind had thus been nurtured for the acceptance and performance of his mission, whenever his day should come. Daniel Webster, even then, in his reply to Col. Robert Y. Hayne (Jan. 26 and 27, 1830) had brought the North up somewhat towards its true position; and as a Whig and genuine admirer of the principles and eloquence of the great senatorial leader, Mr. Sumner [39] must have caught, even at that early day, some glimpses of a grand impending crisis.

Entering the Cambridge Law School in 1831, he came immediately under the instruction of that eminent jurist and accomplished scholar, Joseph Story, Ll.D., who very soon began to appreciate the ability and to gain the affection of his pupil. Mr. Sumner now bestowed his undivided attention upon his legal studies, guided by the eloquent tongue of his distinguished master. He set himself to search from every source available original facts and principles. Not content with the decisions of the courts, he ransacked every nook and corner of historic lore, that he might settle legal questions on the solid grounds of equity and justice. He made himself acquainted with the contents of every volume that the Law-School library, of which he had the charge, contained; and it is said that there was not a book in that valuable collection which he could not lay his hand upon immediately in the dark.

“When he entered the Law School,” says Judge James Dana, “he buckled on his armor and went to his studies with a will, and soon became the leading man in the school, for which he always manifested a strong interest.” Mr. Justice Story was a fine belles-lettres scholar, an earnest lover of the beautiful, the good, and true; and remarkable for his conversational [40] powers, as well as for his genial urbanity, his radiant smile, and graceful manner. Between him and Mr. Sumner, whose eager mind was open to the charming influences of such a sweet-tempered and learned jurist, a mutual sympathy at once arose, which gradually deepened into the sincerest friendship. How strong the tie between these two kindred spirits came to be, the reader may infer from the tribute paid to Mr. Justice Story in Mr. Sumner's elegant oration on “The Scholar, the Jurist, the Artist, the Philanthropist,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University on the twenty-seventh day of August, 1846.

“By the attraction of his name,” says Mr. Sumner, “students were drawn from remote parts of the Union; and the Law School, which had been a sickly branch, became the golden mistletoe of our ancient oak. Besides learning unsurpassed in his profession, which he brought to these added duties, he displayed other qualities not less important in the character of a teacher,--goodness, benevolence, and a willingness to teach. Only a good man can be a teacher,--only a benevolent man, only a man willing to teach. He was filled with a desire to teach. He sought to mingle his mind with that of his pupil. He held it a blessed office to pour into the souls of the young, as into celestial urns, the [41] fruitful waters of knowledge. The kindly enthusiasm of his nature found its response. The law, which is sometimes supposed to be harsh and crabbed, became inviting under his instructions. Its great principles, drawn from the wells of experience and reflection, from the sacred rules of right and wrong, from the unsounded depths of Christian truth, illustrated by the learning of sages and the judgments of courts, he unfolded so as best to inspire a love for their study; well knowing that the knowledge we may impart is trivial, compared with that awakening of the soul under the influence of which the pupil himself becomes a teacher. All of knowledge we can communicate is finite: a few pages, a few chapters, a few volumes, will embrace it. But such an influence is of incalculable power: it is the breath of a new life; it is another soul. Story taught as a priest of the law, seeking to consecrate other priests. In him the spirit spake, not with the voice of an earthly calling, but with the gentleness and self-forgetful earnestness of one pleading in behalf of justice, of knowledge, of human happiness. His well-loved pupils hung upon his lips, and, as they left his presence, confessed a more exalted reverence for virtue, and a warmer love of knowledge for its own sake.”

To his association and communion with this distinguished [42] jurist, whose juridical acquirements and decisions commanded the respect even of the English bench, Mr. Sumner was to no small extent indebted for his profound views of equity and of human rights, as well as for those aspirations for the attainment of eminence in legal science, which formed the basis of that solid and enlightened statesmanship for which he subsequently became so signally distinguished. It was under the genial and erudite tuition of Judge Story, and in the moot courts and discussions of the Law School, that Mr. Sumner first began to command the admiration of his fellow-students, as a man of marked ability and rhetorical power.

During his connection with this institution, he wrote several articles, evincing varied learning and profound research, for “The American jurist;” and on receiving his degree of Ll.B., in 1834, he was considered, both in point of legal science and of oratory, one of the most accomplished of his class. How well Mr. Sumner loved the Law School may be seen from this extract from a report on the condition of that institution, drawn up by him in 1850:--

This library is one of the largest and most valuable, relating to law, to be found in the country. As an aid to study, it cannot be estimated too highly. Here the student may range at will through [43] all the demesnes of jurisprudence. Here he may acquire a knowledge of the books of his profession — learning their true character and value — which will be of incalculable service to him in his future labors. Whoso knows how to use a library possesses the very keys of knowledge. Next to knowing the law, is knowing where the law is to be found.

There is another advantage, of a peculiar character, afforded by the Law School, in the opportunity of kindly and instructive social relations among the students, and also between the students and their instructors. Young men engaged in similar pursuits are professors to each other. The daily conversation concerns their common studies, and contributes some new impulse. Mind meets mind; and each derives strength from the contact. But the instructor is also at hand. In the lecture-room, and also in private, he is ready to afford counsel and help. The students are not alone in their labors. They find an assistant at every step of their journey, ready to conduct them through its devious and toilsome passes, and to remove the difficulties which throng the way. This twofold companionship — of the students with each other, and of the students with their instructors — is full of beneficent influences, not only in the cordial intercours which it begets, but in the positive knowledge which [44] it diffuses, and in its stimulating effect upon the minds of all who enjoy it.

In dwelling on the advantages of the Law School as a seat of legal education, the committee place side by side with the lectures and exercises of the professors the profitable opportunities afforded by the library, and by the fellowship of persons engaged in the same pursuits; all echoing to the heart of the pupil, as from the genius of the place, constant words of succor, encouragement, and hope.

Mr. Sumner read law for some time in the office of Benjamin Rand, Esq., a counsellor distinguished alike for his conversational powers, his love of books, and his knowledge of the law. Every sailing packet which arrived from England brought him the latest legal publications, which he devoured with singular voracity, and then discussed their contents with his brilliant pupil. G. W. Warren and Francis J. Humphrey were his classmates in this office.

“He is remembered there,” writes the latter gentleman to me, “chiefly as a most indefatigable student and lover of books. His personal demeanor was that of a shy and modest maiden. He always greeted me with a cheerful word and a most radiant smile. The notion of ‘arrogance,’ as a quality in the character of Charles Sumner, can excite in me only the emotion of ridicule.” [45]

Mr. Sumner was admitted to the bar at Worcester in 1834, and commenced the practice of law in Boston. Thoroughly prepared as he was for meeting the demands of his vocation, he soon came to enjoy extensive patronage. He was shortly afterwards appointed Reporter to the circuit court of the United States; and while serving in this capacity published the three volumes now known as “Sumner's Reports,” embodying the important legal decisions1 of Mr. Justice Story. He also edited with signal ability “The American jurist,” a standard quarterly journal of jurisprudence. During three successive winters subsequent to his admission to the bar, he delivered lectures to the students of the Dane Law School at Cambridge, and for a brief period had the sole charge of that institution. Such fidelity to his trust, such an affluence of learning, and such legal acumen were exhibited in these lectures, that in 1836 a professorship in the school was [46] tendered to him. This he declined. “Mr. Sumner's position in the legal world,” says Mr. D. A. Harsha, “was an enviable one: he was universally regarded as a young lawyer of exalted talent, brilliant genius, and commanding eloquence.” His legal acquirements attracted the attention, and received the compliments, of Chancellor James Kent and other eminent civilians. His reputation as a lawyer was extended by the able editorship of Andrew Dunlap's standard work on “Admiralty practice,” to which he added valuable notes and comments, and which was published in Philadelphia in 1836. On his death-bed Mr. Dunlap stated that Mr. Sumner had worked over it “with the zeal of a sincere friend, and the accuracy of an excellent lawyer.” By the labors of Mr. Sumner thus far, it appeared that his future career was to be only that of a distinguished lawyer; but, as remarked above, the study of juridical science is essential to the exercise of broad and enlightened statesmanship, for which, though it might have been unconsciously, he was then making preparation. “I knew Mr. Sumner,” says R. B. Caverly, Esq., in a letter to me dated Lowell, April 1, 1874, “in his early manhood. I was with him quite constantly in 1835-36 and ‘37 in the Cambridge Law School, where he occasionally appeared as a professor in place of Judge Story. He [47] was then in manner reserved, yet courteous; in form tall, and comparatively slender. He was prompt in his attendance, and ready in the law. I remember that on his return from Europe he seemed proud to relate that Lord Brougham had expressed to him the opinion that Mr. Justice Story was the greatest judge in the world.”

Mr. Sumner's acquaintance with Dr. S. G. Howe--a true and intimate friend — commenced, it is said, at the great Broad-street riot in 1837. “The rioters had got possession of some barrels of whiskey; when Dr. Howe, seeing a stalwart young man endeavoring with an axe to knock in the head of one of the barrels, hastened to his aid.” This young man proved to be Charles Sumner, with whom he then commenced a friendship, which, cemented by kindred views on the leading questions of human progress, continued until broken by death.

1 The following compliment was paid by Baron Parke to Mr. Sumner, and his Reports of the Decisions of Mr. Justice Story:--

On an insurance question, before the Court of Exchequer, one of the counsel having cited an American case, Baron Parke, the ablest of the English judges, asked him what book he quoted. He replied, “Sumner's Reports.” Baron Rolfe said, “Is that the Mr. Sumner who was once ,in England?” On receiving a reply in the affirmative, Baron Parke observed, “We shall not consider it entitled to the less attention because reported by a gentleman whom we all knew and respected.”

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